MAKING A BANSURI
The Tourist Version, the Classical Versions, and the Hippie Version
By David Osborn
Introduction: A Relative Dearth of Quality Flutes
The north Indian Bansuri is undoubtedly one of the simplest of flutes in overall form and structure; it is a simple nodeless tube of bamboo, with seven holes burned into it, one blow hole and six finger holes, and a cork shoved into the top of the blowing end, right behind the blow hole. Add to this the fact that tourism forms a large part of India’s economy, which invites the business model of street side vendors hawking cheap – and cheaply made – flutes to tourists, and you have a scenario that encourages the mass production of flutes of shoddy or questionable musical tuning and quality. I myself can attest to this fact from my travels in India, where Bansuri flutes of questionable tuning and quality are for sale, even in otherwise reputable music stores in Delhi. “Good enough for rock ‘n’ roll” – that is, good enough for the idle tourist who just wants something he can doodle around on musically, is still a long ways away from being good enough to play serious music on. And so, many Bansuri maestros in recent years have come out trying to clean up this problem area, and raise the overall standards of the industry of Bansuri making.
I have a few different Bansuri flutes in my collection, which I bought during my travels in India, and, frankly speaking, all of them have major flaws, musically speaking, and would not really qualify as being adequate for the serious musician. And so, if you are really serious about learning to play the Bansuri, seek out a qualified and classically trained master of that flute for instruction; he will usually have the right connections to a reputable maker of concert quality Bansuri flutes. Among the tourist quality flutes that I now have in my own personal collection, many are made from bamboo tubes that are majorly bowed, bent or deformed; others are made from substandard bamboo, with fungal infestations and lesions, or the like; and by far the single greatest shortcoming that they have is that their finger holes are not well placed for optimum acoustical and tuning considerations. I do have pieces of bamboo in my collection that I am in the process of making my own Bansuris from which, although they may not be of the authentic variety of Assam bamboo, I am fairly sure that I can make a better quality instrument from than the usual tourist quality flutes that I bought in India.
The Basic Form and Structure of the Bansuri
The Bansuri is essentially nothing more than a side-blown or transverse flute made from bamboo. It has six finger holes and one embouchure or blowing hole. It is made from a long, continuous tube of nodeless bamboo, which is usually of the botanical genus Schizostachyum, usually found growing in the cool, misty Himalayan foothills of the Assam region of northeast India. Behind the blow hole this hollow, continuous tube is stopped with a cork, which can either be made from real cork or some substitute, like hardened rubber. The dimensions of the enclosed air column, from the foot of the flute to the cork, varies in its actual length depending on the size or pitch of the flute being played, but usually, the air column width to length ratio is about 1 to 25, which is slightly wider in proportion to its length than that of the modern silver flute, which is usually about 1 to 30. Some players prefer an air column that is slightly wider, and others one that is slightly narrower in proportion to its length, but these individual preferences and variations center around 1 to 25 or so. Although the basic flute has only six holes, many modern players make the tube and air column a little longer and add a seventh hole, enabling the player to play a half step lower than what would otherwise be the lowest or fundamental note. The hollow, nodeless bamboo tube is either perfectly round and cylindrical throughout its entire length, or it is very slightly narrower at its bottom or foot end, by about one millimeter, or two at the most. The bamboo tube is stopped with a cork because its positioning is adjustable, enabling the maker to then fine tune its position to bring the low and high registers into balance with each other.
What I have just described for you in the preceding paragraph is the essential or basic form and structure of the Bansuri, which is the transverse bamboo flute played in North Indian classical music. This great flute of North Indian classical music has a few other variations, however, that adapt the basic form as described above to the particular exigencies of time, place and circumstance. These are the “good enough for rock ‘n’ roll” tourist model Bansuri, which I described at the outset of this article; the South Indian Venu, which has adapted itself to the local environment and classical music system of South India; and what could be called the “Hippie Bansuri”, which is a transverse bamboo flute that is made from select pieces of bamboo that happen to be commonly available in the US. Let me describe each of these variations in more detail:
The Tourist Bansuri: The basic form and construction of the classical North Indian Bansuri are followed, but the overall level of musical care and precision with which it is crafted suffers, as this is a flute that is mass produced in a quick and cheap manner. The typical places in which the tourist model suffers is in the quality of its basic bamboo tube, which may be markedly crooked and/or deformed, either being not very round and cylindrical in its cross-sectional profile, or seriously warped or bowed, and not very straight; or both of the above. The other major flaw is that the finger holes are not placed for optimum musical tuning and acoustical advantage, but placed rather haphazardly; I will detail these common placement defects and their remedies below.
The South Indian Venu: While the Bansuri is the flute of North Indian classical music, the Venu is the flute of South Indian classical or Carnatic music. As such, there are some significant differences between the north Indian Bansuri and the south Indian Venu, and “Venu”, when one gets into the sacred literature of Hinduism, is just another name for Krishna’s flute. The main difference one notices between the flute music of north versus south India is that lower pitched flutes are preferred, and are the norm, in North India, whereas shorter, higher pitched flutes are the norm in South India. The South Indian Venu has adapted itself to the local environment and bamboo resources, and is usually made from the species Ochlandra travancorica, which is indigenous to the Travancore region of South India. This species, while also having a very long distance between its nodes, is somewhat thicker walled than the north Indian Assam bamboo, and has a greater tapering towards the top end of its internode, which is inverted and placed at the bottom end or foot of the flute. Instead of having an adjustable cork, a node is usually what stops the flute at the bowing end, right behind the blow hole. Otherwise, the two flutes are quite similar, having the same six basic finger holes.
The Hippie Bansuri: What if you’re just a poor Hippie living in San Francisco, or some other town in the USA, and can’t hop on a plane and go to India to either buy an authentic Bansuri from a master craftsman, or get the real, nodeless bamboo from the Himalayan foothills of Assam? Then, you are at the mercy of your local bamboo dealer, and the kind of bamboo he has in stock. And the main difference between the Indian species of bamboo that make the classical flutes of north and south India and the usual bamboo that is for sale in the US is that the former has a very long distance between its nodes, enabling the maker to make a flute that is entirely nodeless, or which just has one single node at its blowing end, behind the blow hole. Although I admit that this situation of having to have the main tube or enclosed air column of the flute interrupted or potentially disfigured by at least one node falls short of the ideal, under the right circumstances, and with a little luck, you might be able to make a decent flute from it. And so, the Hippie Bansuri usually has two nodes to it, one which is behind the blow hole, and which remains intact, to serve as the “cork”; and the other that falls somewhere along the main tube of the instrument, which has to be carefully reamed and hollowed out to preserve the integrity of the enclosed air column as much as possible. If you’re lucky, you can find a piece of bamboo that is remarkably straight, including at the crucial node that falls within the main body of the flute. Or, you can get lucky and make a flute that somehow plays decently well and in tune in spite of having that crucial node being less than perfectly straight. At any rate, don’t throw out the piece of bamboo onto the trash heap until you see how the flute turns out.
Any introductory description of the Bansuri would be incomplete without mentioning the relative pros and cons of flutes that are narrower versus flutes that are wider in their inner bore diameters. And this matter of bore diameters is equally relevant, even if you’re making a Hippie Bansuri, a Venu, or any other Bansuri variation. Some players prefer narrower bored flutes, whereas others prefer wider bored flutes – and Bansuri makers tend to cater to the musical and artistic tastes of their clients. So, let me briefly describe here the relative pros and cons of narrower versus wider bores:
Wider Bores produce a very full, soft, broad and mellow tone in the lower register, which is, quite frankly, very appealing and desirable. However, the higher or highest notes can be a bit thin and breathy, and articulation is often not as clear and crisp as with narrower bore flutes.
Narrower Bores produce a tone that is quite focused and well-defined throughout the flute’s range, especially up on top; the articulation of the notes, whether with the tongue or with the fingers, also tends to be a lot clearer and crisper. If the bore is too narrow, however, the tone will be too thin and reedy, and lack breadth and body.
From what I have observed, it seems as if Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia prefers wider bored flutes, whereas Pandit GS Sachdev prefers narrower bored flutes. I must emphasize again that neither is right and neither is wrong; it is simply a matter of personal musical and artistic tastes and preferences. Both wider bored as well as narrower bored flutes can be great instruments; it mainly depends upon the care and precision with which the flute is made.
Master Bansuri craftsman Subhash Thakur tells us how he chooses the bamboo for making his Bansuris.
Making a Bansuri: The Basic Process
The Bansuri is one of the simplest flutes out there, and therefore, making one is a process that can be accomplished in only a few easy steps. Just because the process of making a Bansuri is relatively simple does not mean that it is something that should be done in a “quick and dirty” manner, as with the tourist model; with the Bansuri, as with any other quality flute, care and precision during the manufacturing process really pays off. So, let’s take a brief run through of the main steps of the Bansuri making process, from start to finish:
1) Selecting and Cutting the Bamboo: If you are able to acquire a piece or pieces of real Assam bamboo, then you will be able to make an authentic Bansuri in the traditional style. If Assam bamboo should be unavailable, other species of bamboo with very long internode length include Travancore bamboo (Ochlandra travancorica), Quena bamboo (Aulonemia quecko), or Weaver’s Bamboo (Bambusa textilis). There may be other species and varieties out there, but chances are that they are close botanical relatives of the above varieties. If you must rely on bamboo that is commonly available from bamboo dealers in the US or outside of India, you will probably have to settle for making a flute that has an intervening node in the main tube or body of the instrument. If this is the case, I suggest that you choose this special piece with great care and attention to detail, and try to choose a piece that is as straight as possible, especially at the crucial intervening node, but also throughout the length of what will become the entire tube or body of the instrument. Black Bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra) is often a good choice, and often yields pieces that are exceptionally straight, cylindrical and thin walled, with a sufficiently long distance between the nodes; its overall tone quality and sonority is also great, and unrivaled. After this, the next best choice is Moso Bamboo (Phyllostachys bambusoides), which has the next longest internode length, even though its tone quality and sonority are not quite as good. Tonkin Bamboo (Arundinaria amabilis McClure) is also of superior sonority and tone quality, but does not seem to fulfill the essential specifications nearly as often – crookedness and bowing of the internodes is the usual culprit.
Even makers of concert quality Bansuris admit that they don’t accept every piece of bamboo they obtain as being worthy of their efforts, and wind up discarding many pieces as being unsuitable. How much more picky and discerning should one be, then, to make a Bansuri out of a piece of bamboo that has an intervening node falling within its main tube, since nodes are inherently tricky and problematic. In short, you can’t claim to be a maker of quality bamboo flutes unless there is a substantial portion of the bamboo stock that you initially acquire that you subsequently discard or throw out as being not up to your high standards. The exact portion or part of the bamboo pole that you wind up using should also be carefully selected as being the optimum section possible within that pole, and capable of yielding the best quality flute. Deciding which portion, which “cut” of the bamboo pole you will use is something that should not be done hastily or recklessly, but only after careful thought and reflection, during which one weighs out the varying pros and cons of one section or “cut” versus another.
2) Bore Work (If Necessary): After the right section or piece has been cut, which will yield the best quality flute, the next step is then to prepare the inner bore of the instrument, should that be necessary – and by this, I am referring specifically to the inner removal of an intervening node that is obstructing what would otherwise be a smooth, contiguous inner bore. This must also be done with great prudence and care, with the goal of producing an inner tube that is smooth and flat on the inside of its walls, and free of the troublesome ruts and ridges that so often characterize hasty or careless bore work. The initial removal of the intervening node is best done with a steel rod or curtain rod and a hammer or mallet. To begin the process of gradually smoothing away the joint on the inside, a large rat tailed file can be used, but if so, care must be taken that it doesn’t leave internal gouges or ruts in the bore. A far more reliable tool, and the one that you will definitely wind up using to finish off the job, is a dowel stick to which pieces of coarse grained sandpaper have been glued with wood glue. The strips of sandpaper that are glued to the dowel stick should be about 3 to 4 inches long (8 to 10 cm.), and wide enough to wrap around the entire circumference of the dowel stick. With this homemade tool, carefully and gradually sand away every last vestige of the internal joint or node until only a smooth inner surface remains. You can often feel this when you sand.
3) Cleaning and Preparing the Inside and Outside of the Tube: After the inner bore work is done, should it have been necessary, the next step is to clean and prepare the bamboo tube on both its inside and outside. On the inside, a quick brushing with a long stemmed bottle brush is usually sufficient to remove any “fluff”, internal membranes or other debris that may be on the inside, which could inhibit the full tone and sonority of the final flute. On the outside, the bamboo tube can be “skinned”, or the outer skin scraped off if so desired, or simply lightly sanded. Places in which there are outer nodes remaining can be carefully filed and sanded off if so desired, taking care not to leave any unsightly nicks or gouges above or below the joint. It is during this stage that the inner bore of the flute can be oiled or sealed with some sealant like polyurethane, to protect it from the moisture of the player’s breath. The bamboo tube can be oiled or sealed on the outside as well as on the inside. Good oils to use include Castor Oil, Grapeseed Oil, Linseed Oil, and Sesame Oil.
4) Inserting the Cork (If Necessary): If you have chosen to first create a totally open bamboo tube, or have the nodeless bamboo that allows you to do that, the next step is to insert the cork into the tube. The cork can be cut and filed or sanded off to the point at which it is only slightly wider than the inner bore diameter, then lubricated with a suitable form of oil or grease and shoved into the inner bore of the top or blowing end of the flute. If you do decide to use an insertable cork, be sure that you know, and have marked off, exactly where the cork ends on the inside, and the enclosed air column begins, because this will be important for placing the blow hole. If you have decided to use the natural node of the bamboo as the upper cork or stopper, this is in many ways a good option, because you have the outer markings of the node, which are visible and discernable even if you have filed and sanded the protruding node off on the outside. The advantage of having a movable cork is that it enables one to fine tune the balance between the upper and lower registers by fine adjustments in the cork’s placement.
5) Placing and Opening Up the Blow Hole: After you have inserted the cork or used the natural node of the bamboo as the upper cork or stopper, and are clear on its exact position or placement, the next step is to place and open up the blow hole or embouchure hole. Generally speaking, a good distance to which to place the blow hole is about 15 millimeters, or 1.5 cm. down the tube from the bottom end of the cork and the beginning of the enclosed air column – that is, its center should be placed at that point. There are basically two different methods of placing holes in the Bansuri, or any bamboo flute, for that matter: drilling and burning. The great drawback for drilling, even with metal bits (don’t use wood bits at all!) is that the twisting tensions created can crack the bamboo, especially if the walls are rather thin, as they are with the Bansuri. Therefore, the preferred method of Bansuri makers is to burn the holes in. There are two ways of doing this: either you can use an electric soldering iron, or you can heat a hot poker to red hot over the burner of a stove. I happen to prefer the former option. The size of this blow hole will finally wind up being about 11 to 12 mm. in diameter, but when you first put the hole in, make sure that its diameter is quite a bit smaller than that, and gradually enlarge it, using a rat tailed file. Enlarge the blow hole gradually, testing the tone it produces as you go; eventually, you will hit that “sweet spot” of perfect balance between focus and openness.
6) Placing and Opening Up the Finger Holes: There are six finger holes on the Bansuri, just as there are six holes on the Irish flute. And these holes, when opened one by one from the bottom up, produce a diatonic scale. This is one big area in which the “tourist model” Bansuris really suffer and fall short; these inferior quality Bansuris don’t really play in tune because their finger holes are not in their optimum acoustical positions or placement. More will be given below on proper finger hole placement. The proper and most commonly used technique for placing the finger holes on the Bansuri, a bamboo flute with fairly thin walls, is to burn them in with a hot poker or soldering iron. If a smaller diameter hole is desired, as is often the case with the third hole from the bottom as well as the top hole, the poker or soldering iron is not pushed all the way through, but only partially. As a rule, the holes, when they are initially burned in, are quite a bit smaller than their final size; they are gradually enlarged by means of a rat tail file or a file or small stick covered with sandpaper. Enlarging the holes gradually is a means of tuning them, and bringing them up to the proper pitch – the larger the hole, the higher the pitch.
7) Binding and Finishing the Flute: Bamboo is a fairly fragile material, and splits and cracks easily. For this reason, the Bansuri is commonly bound up with fine cord, usually nylon or some other plastic filament. This binding also serves an aesthetic purpose as well, transforming the flute from something that is fairly plain into something that is more visually interesting and attractive. Alternatively, various finishes and wood stains may also be applied to the exterior of the flute if a more hippie look and feel is desired.
Finger Hole Placement Issues – And Their Resolution
The whole matter of finger hole placement is a very sensitive and delicate one on the Bansuri, and very important and crucial for the proper tuning of the instrument and its scale. In tourist model Bansuris, the finger holes are hastily and sloppily placed, and the tuning of the flute and its swaras, or notes, is also imprecise and haphazard. To a certain limited extent, the tuning of a tourist model Bansuri can be improved by either making the finger holes larger or smaller; they can be enlarged slowly with a rat tailed file if the pitch is too low, and if the pitch is too high, then a finger hole can be narrowed or made smaller by the application of layers of epoxy glue or putty to the rim of the hole in a graduated fashion, but these solutions are far from being totally satisfactory. In short, no after-the-fact remedy is as good as putting the finger holes in the right place to begin with. Makers of tourist model Bansuris tend to place the holes in the places that are easiest to reach with the fingers, to the detriment of the musical acoustics and tuning of the flute. Makers of fine, concert quality Bansuris, on the other hand, may put some finger holes in places that are slightly harder to reach with the fingers, but which have greater acoustical desirability, and produce a clearer, truer and more solid and in tune note.
For the purposes of this discussion, I will be numbering the finger holes from the bottom up, since they are uncovered or opened from the bottom up to go up the scale. And so, the fingers of the right or bottom hand will finger holes one, two and three, with the first hole being fingered with the ring finger, the second hole with the middle finger, and the third hole with the index finger. The same general numbering procedure continues with the finger holes of the left or upper hand, with the ring finger on the fourth hole, the middle finger on the fifth hole, and the index finger on the sixth hole. The first major difference that the discerning musician notices between the tourist model Bansuri and the concert quality model is that, in the tourist model, the lower three holes – holes one, two and three – are more evenly spaced to fit the fingers, which pretty much fan out with equal spacing between them, whereas these same three holes in a concert quality Bansuri are not evenly spaced, with the distance between the first and second holes being roughly twice the distance between the second and third holes. This is because there is only a half step between the notes produced by opening the second and third holes, whereas there is a whole step – twice the musical or tuning distance – between the notes produced by opening the first and second holes. This is the most obvious example of how the concert quality Bansuri places musical and acoustical considerations over mere ergonomic convenience and facility.
And now, I will discuss the major issues involved with the proper acoustical and tuning placement of each of the finger holes one by one, from the bottom up, showing where and how it differs from the common errors and digressions that are made with tourist model flutes:
First Hole: If we take, for the purposes of our discussion, the fundamental note as being “Do” (even though that is not the tonic note for classical North Indian music played on the Bansuri), then the note produced by opening the first or bottom hole could be called “Re”, which is a full whole step above the fundamental note or “Do”, but no higher. For the purposes of an easier reach by the ring finger, which tends to be shorter than the index or middle fingers on the hands of most people, makers of tourist model Bansuris usually place this hole higher up on the flute than is its optimum placement for acoustical and tuning considerations. Although this first or bottom hole can be made slightly smaller than the other holes to compensate and lower its tuning somewhat, thereby bringing it more into line, if this is done, the overall strength, clarity, openness and solidity of its tone quality suffers, because it is not in its acoustically ideal place. And so, makers of concert quality Bansuri will place this important first hole down a little lower on the flute, which enables them to make it larger while still keeping it in tune. This benefits not only the strength, solidity and clarity of the natural “Re” produced when the hole is fully open, but also enables the flattened “Re”, which is played by only partially opening the first hole, to be clearer and stronger as well.
Second Hole: The second hole, when opened in addition to the bottom or first hole, produces the note, “Mi”, which is a full whole step above “Re”, which was produced by opening only the first or bottom hole. On most tourist model flutes, the second hole is placed too low on the flute – again for ergonomic convenience and facility, since it makes for a narrower and easier spread between the ring and middle fingers – but the musical result is that the “Mi” produced by opening the second hole in addition to the first is usually flat in the tourist model, falling somewhere in the cracks between the major third and the minor third. We have now gone up the scale by only two notes, but already the tourist model Bansuri has erred on both of these notes, by tending to make the “Re” too high, and the “Mi” too low. Not a very good track record, indeed! Makers of concert quality Bansuris will put this second hole where it needs to be for musical and acoustical soundness and correctness – up a little higher. This makes the spread between the ring and middle fingers of the right or bottom hand a bit wider and more of a stretch, but the musical and tuning benefits are worth it.
Third Hole: The third hole, producing the note “Fa”, which is only a half step above the “Mi” produced when the bottom two holes are both opened, needs to be placed low enough and close enough to the second hole so as to produce a note that is only a half step above it, and no more. As I said earlier, on a concert quality Bansuri, the distance between the second and third holes is roughly only half the distance between the first and second holes – whereas, in the tourist model, the spacing is more equal between all three of the bottom holes of the Bansuri – which is great for ergonomic fingering convenience, but bad for tuning and musical desirability. Is the “Fa” or perfect fourth, in tune in and of itself? The best way to test for this is to first play the fundamental note, with all holes closed, and then the fourth or “Fa” (which is the tonic note if you’re playing Indian classical music on the Bansuri, by the way), by opening all of the bottom three holes at once. Hopefully, this should produce the musical interval of a perfect fourth (as in ‘Here comes the bride…’) but no more. A common error with the tourist model Bansuri is that this fourth note, or “Fa” is often too high. Many tourist model Bansuris are made with the third hole a little smaller in order to compensate and bring down the resulting pitch, but often, this is not sufficient compensation for placing the hole way too high to begin with.
In short, the bottom three holes tend to be the most problematic in their placement, and the most likely ones to be out of tune, or suffer in their overall quality and acoustical soundness, for two main reasons. The first reason is that the musical intervals between the notes associated with the opening of these holes is unequal – so consequently, the proper acoustical placement of these holes also needs to be unequal. Secondly, these three holes, which are all placed towards the bottom of the flute’s tube, involve a longer air column, which means a wider spread of the fingers. A wider spread of the fingers is challenging and demanding enough for the player, but coupling that with an uneven spread is even more difficult. And so, Bansuri players must really train themselves to stretch and spread their fingers in order to gain any playing fluency and facility on their flute. The upper three holes – holes four, five and six – tend to be less problematic for the Bansuri maker and player, but still, tourist model Bansuris can miss the mark here as well, although usually by not as much. The notes produced by the opening of the three top holes are all a whole step apart, so no uneven spread is involved; and, because they are higher up on the body of the flute, involving a shorter air column length, the overall spread involved is shorter and easier than with the bottom three holes.
Fourth Hole: The fourth hole is associated with the dominant or fifth note of the scale, or “Sol”, which is the note produced when all four of the bottom holes are opened. Although this note is usually pretty well tuned, in both the tourist model as well as the classical, serious Bansuri, if and when the tourist model errs on this hole, it is most likely to be placed too high, and therefore a little on the sharp side – after all, a higher placement of this hole requires a shorter and easier spread of the fingers.
Fifth Hole: The fifth hole is associated with “La”, or the sixth note of the diatonic scale. Because it is fingered with the middle finger of the left or upper hand, and is therefore in the center of the finger spread, this is the hole that is most likely to be in tune, even on the tourist model Bansuri.
Sixth Hole: The sixth hole is associated with “Ti”, or the seventh note of the diatonic scale. On many flutes, especially tourist model ones, this hole may be slightly smaller than its lower neighbors. Because it is fingered with the upper or index finger of the left or upper hand, when it is misplaced, it is most likely to fall a bit low or flat of the optimum placement, producing a seventh note that falls somewhere in between that of a natural and a flattened or dominant seventh. Errors or deviations in the tuning of this note can be observed not only between it and its lower neighbor, “La”, but also between it and its higher neighbor, which is the upper or overblown “Do”. Sometimes this hole is opened, either fully or partially, while all the holes below it are closed, in order to produce the upper “Do”, as an alternative to simply closing all the holes and overblowing to produce this note. If the flute is in tune, the upper “Do”, with both fingerings, should produce notes that are identical in pitch, differing only in the subtle dimension of tone quality. And both of these fingerings should produce a note that is exactly one full octave above the fundamental – no more, and no less. And this octave note should also fall exactly one half step above the seventh note produced with all holes open. Indeed, this sixth or topmost hole represents a crucial link in the chain of proper tuning as the transition between one register and another.
Bansuri Flute Clinic Case Study: My Best Tourist Model Bansuri
As a kind of practical illustration to help you get a better idea of the specifications of an actual Bansuri, as well as how defects and shortcomings in these specifications can be remedied and overcome to produce a better flute, I offer as a case study my best tourist model Bansuri, which I picked up on one of my trips to India – I bought it in the holy city of Rishikesh, in the foothills of the Himalayas, I believe. It has the “D” above middle “C” as its fundamental, since, because of my relatively small hands and short fingers, I cannot make the stretch to play a larger flute. So, measuring sticks and rulers in hand, as well as my electronic tuner to check out the tuning of each and every note, I began to take a closer look at this Bansuri, so I could fully assess its defects and shortcomings. Not only did I assess these defects, I reflected on and proposed a way to remedy them. Here are my findings:
The fundamental note of D was slightly flat; only when I blew extra hard on the flute did the pitch rise enough to hit the green light on my tuner; otherwise, it was 10 to 15 cents flat. When I stuck a dowel stick inside the bore or tube of the flute all the way down to the cork, I got a total air column length of 55.75 cm. This is over a whole centimeter longer than the 54.5 air column length of the standard size Japanese Shakuhachi, which also has the same D fundamental. Perhaps a compromise solution of 55.0 cm. would be the best. The air column width or bore diameter at the bottom of the tube is about 19 to 19.5 mm., or a little larger than ¾ inch.
The distance from the bottom end or foot of the flute up to the center of the first hole was 8.75 cm., and the diameter of the hole was about 7.5 mm. The pitch of the “Re” or “E” note produced by opening this hole was pretty well in tune, but rather fuzzy and weak in character; I suppose that on a concert quality Bansuri it would be placed a bit lower down towards the foot and made a little larger to compensate, producing a note that was still pretty much the same pitch, but more clear and open in tone. Probably moving the first hole down to only 8.5 cm. above the bottom and making it a little larger would do the trick.
The distance from the center of the first hole to the center of the second hole was 4.75 cm, with its diameter being around 11 to 12 mm., which was due mainly to my persistent efforts to enlarge it in order to bring the “Mi”, or “F#” up to pitch. But in spite of these persistent efforts, the “Mi” is now quite close to being in tune, but falling about 10 cents flat or so on my tuner. To compensate for this great original flatness, and to also take into account the lowering of the first hole, I have estimated that the revised or remedied distance between the centers of the first and second holes to be 5.3 cm. This would move the actual placement of the second hole to 13.8 cm. from the bottom, as opposed to the original cumulative distance of 13.5 cm. from the bottom. Hopefully, this will be sufficient to bring it more into pitch, although I might still have to make the hole quite a bit larger than the others to bring it into tune – or to place it even higher up.
The distance from the center of the second hole to the center of the third hole was 3.6 cm., with the diameter of the hole being about 7.5 mm. Although this hole sounded pretty much in tune to my ears, when I checked it on the tuner, it was about 15 to 20 cents sharp of the perfect fourth, or “Fa” (G). And so, this hole needs to be lowered. With a distance of only 3.0 cm. from the center of the second hole to the center of the third hole, this would bring the total or cumulative distance of the third hole up from the bottom as being only 16.8 cm., as opposed to the 17.1 cm. cumulative with the unrevised specifications. The third hole would still probably need to be a bit smaller in size so as not to go over the perfect fourth.
With the cumulative distance from the bottom up to the center of the third hole shortened by about 3 mm., my approach to placing the fourth hole would be to basically keep the distance between the third and fourth holes pretty much as it is, shortening it by only one millimeter, from 5.1 cm. to 5.0 cm. This is because the tuning of the fourth hole was not too bad – only slightly sharp, no more, with a diameter of about 8.5 mm.
The fifth hole was the real shocker – it was quite sharp of the “La” or “B”, by more than 30 cents! And so, I decided to shorten the distance of the fifth hole above the fourth by about 3 mm., from 4.3 mm. to 4.0 mm. Also, it just happened that the fifth hole was the largest hole (originally speaking, not counting the greatly rasped and enlarged second hole) on the flute, with a diameter of about 9.5 mm. Perhaps lowering its placement by 3 mm., coupled with decreasing its size a bit, would bring the “La” or “B” right into line.
The sixth hole was an interesting case – it was pretty much in tune in the lower register, but on the overblow, it was quite flat. So – what to do? Here, the simple process of speculating and projecting may not be enough, and it might take a few flutes down the road before you can work out a practically workable solution that would put the “Ti” or “C#” into tune in both the upper and lower registers. I just opted out to make the distance from the fifth to the sixth hole the same as from the fourth to the fifth hole. It might turn out, upon actual experimentation, that placing it higher up, by about 3 mm. or so, and making the hole slightly smaller than the preceding ones, might just be the way to go. The real trick is bringing both registers into line. Of course, a lower placement for the sixth hole would require a larger hole diameter. In my model, the sixth hole was 4.0 cm. up, and the diameter was 8.0 mm; same for my revised version – pending the results of actual experimentation.
So, you can see from this little case study that the process of remedying and optimizing flute dimensions and specifications, especially when it comes to finger hole placement, is far from simple and easy. What is sought as the ideal is an overall plan or schema – a formula or protocol for finger hole placement, if you will, and if possible, one that can be adjusted to accommodate the subtle differences between various pieces of bamboo regarding the particular individual quirks of their tubes or air columns. The bottom line is that there is no substitute for experience. The guidelines that I have given you here may produce a pretty decent flute, that may even be a cut above the tourist model, but far more likely, it will probably be but a start on the long journey towards making a real concert quality Bansuri. Good luck!
Conclusion: Connecting with Master Bansuri Makers
Even if you don’t have the incredibly good karma to become the personal guru kula disciple of a master Bansuri maker, there is one way in which any aspiring flute maker can avail themselves of their instruction – and that is by buying flutes made by these master craftsmen and studying them in detail. What exactly is it that makes them so good? Or, to get started, you can simply order a flute from a master Bansuri craftsman and make a flute that is a faithful copy of it, copying and reproducing all its dimensions, as I presented them in the case study, as faithfully as possible. With a little luck and patience, you can probably make quite a good flute by doing this. Why start with a model that is nothing but a tourist model Bansuri, when you can use as your model a real concert quality instrument made by a true master of his craft?
And so, I present you with a list of links to the websites of master Bansuri craftsmen, as well as their distributors.
www.punamflutes.com – This is the official website of master Bansuri craftsman Subhash Thakur, who is probably the best known master Bansuri craftsman in the world. His patrons and clients include most of the top Bansuri players in India. Even though Pt. Thakur is located in India, he has sales outlets for his flutes all over the world – check his site.
www.anubodh.com – This is the official website of the Bansuri maker Anubodh, who also has top Banusri players as his customers and clients.
One World Flutes. - This web page is a sales outlet for the fine Bansuris of Jeff Whittier, a master Bansuri craftsman from northern California. Jeff tends to make flutes that are a bit narrower in their bore diameters than those made by the above makers, and makes flutes for maestro GS Sachdev and his students.